Influence of the Book of Common Prayer on the English language

The Book of Common Prayer: A Social Review

The first edition: 1549

The Book of Common Prayer was the title given to the book of forms of Christian worship imposed by parliament on the English church in 1549. The Council of King Edward VI (1547-1553) wished to advance the Reformation and so made it illegal for any minister to vary from the prescribed form by an Act of Uniformity.

More on the imposition of the BCP: In Tudor times (i.e. the 16th century) there was no concept of ‘freedom of religion'. The nation was viewed as a single religious entity and the people of England were the Church of England without remainder. To be free thinking was dangerous, and Henry VIII (1509-1547) burned papist and protestant alike. Religion was bound up with political realities – papists in Edward VI's reign might well be plotting to get his Roman Catholic sister Mary, next in succession, onto the throne; while extreme reformers might well be seeking popular revolution, such as had occurred in places on the continent.Reformers aimed to permit and encourage the population to read and understand the Bible by making it available in English, but this required:
  • tight control on the speed of reform
  • the necessity of carrying the people with it.
Persuasion could be supported by force, but the real goal was capturing the minds of the people by the sheer impact of reformed ideas. The BCP was a vital part of this programme.

An English liturgy

The major characteristic of the Book of Common Prayer was that it was all in English, a complete change from the Latin forms of liturgy which had remained in use even when Henry VIII (1509-47) had thrown Book of Common Prayeroff the authority of the Pope in 1532-34. At the same time, many medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices were softened or eliminated in the services.

In 1549, one copy of the Book was sufficient for most parishes, as the large proportion of the population was not expected to be able to read – and the BCP was large and expensive. It was a book for the people to hear, read aloud to them by the minister. Where there was a part for the people to say (as, for instance, in the Lord's Prayer), they would repeat lines read to them by the minister (as still happens with the vows in the marriage service).


The main hand drafting the services was that of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been involved in various ways in providing the Bible in English in Henry VIII's time, and had also translated the Litany and other prayers in preparation for the enormous change the new book was to usher in. During Edward VI's reign Cranmer presented a unique combination of protestant theological conviction, political power, and a brilliant ability to write English prose. The 1549 Book was the result of that combination.

The 1552 edition

Just like translations of the Bible, the BCP underwent further textual revision.

In 1552 Cranmer put through a new Book which:

  • strengthened the reformed emphasis but

  • retained 80% of the text drafted in 1549 and
  • conformed wholly to the original language style in the newly changed parts.

This was abolished in the reign of Mary I (1553-1558), but restored by Elizabeth I (1558-1603). James I (1603-1625) made only small changes, despite the more radical reformers being unhappy with simply set prayers, and wanting more scope for extemporary thanksgivings and intercessions.

The 1662 edition

The BCP was banned by the Puritan Parliament in 1645. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Book was again revised and imposed by a new Act of Uniformity in 1662. References in England to the Book of Common Prayer refer to the 1662 Book, unless some qualification is added to indicate a different version.

The 1662 Book remained the only officially authorized Book in the Church of England until 1966; and, although alternatives to it have been lawful since then, it remains a foundation document of the Church of England and is cited in the Church's formularies as a secondary source of doctrine after the Bible and the Creeds.

The spread of literacy

From the 16th century to the 20th, literacy spread, particularly in the 19th century. The King James Bible was found in every literate home, and taught in school, as well as in the Sunday Schools which developed from the latter half of the 1800s. For members of the Church of England (one third of the nation at the religious census in 1851), the Book of Common Prayer was the partner of the Bible, being read and learned at home, and very often also carried to church. Often the BCP collect, epistle and gospel set for each Sunday were read at home the previous night, the young learning the collects by heart through the year.

Musical involvement

As cheaper printing emerged, every church pew carried copies of the Book, though much of the service was still designed to be listened to. Only in the second half of the 20th century was the amount that the congregation read aloud increased.

With the advancement of church music, those who had previously recited a psalm line by line after the minister, now sung parts of the liturgy, led by a choir. The provision of hymn-books increased, which were deliberately edited to match the Prayer Book's festivals and main seasons of the church's year.

Modern Anglican liturgies

The 1662 Book went to the ends of the earth as the Anglican Communion spread. Until the 1950s any revised forms of worship in different provinces still retained the BCP Tudor language in English editions and only marginally altered its contents. However, after the Second World War there was a great cultural shift into twentieth century language. This was due to:

  • the rise in new modern translations of the Bible

  • other pressures such as the radical adoption of vernacular languages in worship in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II

The most significant change was no doubt the addressing of God as ‘you' rather than ‘thou' (‘thou' was the intimate form of address when the BCP was compiled but had gradually lost this meaning). Modern liturgical texts, such as the Anglican Common Worship, read very differently from those in the BCP.

The linguistic influence of the BCP

Memorable English

The BCP is generally reckoned a masterpiece of writing, as Cranmer's use of idiom, cadences, imagery, repetition, contrast and general rhythm made doctrine, devotion, and the sheer use of English both memorable and exemplary. In this way, the language and indeed the whole culture of the BCP came to be a major ingredient in not only the religion of England, but in the thought-forms and speech of a large proportion of English men and women.

Faith expressed in the vernacular

While the Authorised Bible reflected not only the wording, but also the sentence structure, of the Hebrew and Greek originals, the BCP expressed belief in a thoroughly English tongue, the language its hearers were instinctively attuned to. Although it might at intervals echo a Latin liturgical original, it frequently took its style directly from Thomas Cranmer.

Learning by listening

Whether the BCP liturgy was exhortation, or prayers, or the reading of the Bible, or the reading of a set authorized homily (or sermon), the part of the lay people was (as the ‘Prayer for the Church Militant' put it):

‘that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.' (Editor's emphasis)

In Cranmer's famous collect of the second Sunday in Advent listening also comes first:

‘...who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them...' (Editor's emphasis)

Even these examples reveal their nature as liturgical material to be read aloud and taken aboard simply by hearing.

An aural text

To aid the process of understanding, there are frequent repetitions and balanced phrases, such as:

Not only does the rhythm of these sentences make them more memorable, but also at the very time when they are read within the services, their meaning goes deeper because the repetitions slow down to manageable speed the conveying of new thoughts to the hearers. In political terms, the ‘top-down' management of the Reformation, of which the BCP was a tool, depended upon one category of persons giving direction, and a lower category ‘hearing and receiving' it.

How Cranmer's language works

Contrast and balance

The Advent collect makes sense through a series of interlocking contrasts:

‘Almighty God, give us grace that
we may cast away                       the works of darkness
and put upon us               the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
                                 in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us
                                                                             in great humility
that in the last day
                                 when he shall come again
                                                                             in his glorious Majesty
to judge both the quick    and the dead
we may rise to the life      immortal;
through him who (liveth and reigneth) with (thee and the Holy Ghost), (now and ever). Amen.'

The contrasts here, marked by colour, demonstrate both the skill and the originality of the author; they make the text memorable, and help fix its teaching into the minds of those praying with it. The prayer then ends with a series of balanced phrases ([bracketed]).

Paired phrases

In the Prayer of St. Chrysostom Cranmer is translating from Greek quite closely, but the liturgical pairings suggest a pattern distinctly his:

‘Almighty God,
        who hast given us grace
                                             ...with one accord
                                                                            ... common supplications
...and dost promise
                               ...two or three are gathered together
                                                                                          ...their requests
                                           ...the desires
                                             and petitions may be most expedient this world knowledge of thy truth
...and in the world to come life everlasting.

Cumulative repetition

The 1662 prayer of General Thanksgiving (regularly attributed to Edward Reynolds) uses balanced synonyms (bracketed) and one contrast (coloured) to build its effect:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most {humble and hearty} thanks for all thy {goodness and loving kindness} to {us and to all men}.

We bless thee for our {creation, preservation, and all the blessings} of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, {for the means of grace and for the hope of glory}.

And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our {hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise}, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by {giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee} in {holiness and righteousness} all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with {thee and the Holy Ghost} be all {honour and glory} world without end.

The Lord's Prayer

BCP Lord's Prayer (1662, virtually 1549)

Common Worship Lord's Prayer (2000)

OUR Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.


‘Trespass' vs. ‘sin'

  • ‘To sin' in modern English means ‘transgression of divine law' or ‘violation of religious principles'. It is mainly used in a religious context

  • Trespass on the other hand has a more particular meaning

    • Without an object, the meaning of trespass can be similar to that of ‘sin', although it can convey this meaning in a non-religious context, i.e. ‘to wrong', ‘to offend'

    • Trespass also means ‘to infringe upon', ‘to encroach', or ‘to intrude', as well as ‘to creep stealthily' and ‘to thrust oneself into circumstances where one is not welcome'. It implies the invasion of places and customs by violating and disregarding them

    • Finally, trespass can also mean ‘causing injury to a person, property or right' when it is used in a legal context

    • It is these latter two definitions which give the modern usage of the word its strongest connotations

  • Given the above, the common use of the word ‘trespass' today has a narrower connotation than that implied by the word ‘sin'.

Personal pronouns

  • In the modern Lord's Prayer two personal pronouns are used: ‘your' (your Kingdom come…) and ‘yours' (for the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours…)

  • The BCP equivalents are ‘thy' and ‘thine' respectively. ‘Thou', ‘thy' and ‘thine' were the equivalent of the modern singular ‘you', while ‘you' in the seventeenth century was solely used for the plural.

Verb ‘to be'

  • In modern English, the second person form of the verb ‘to be' in the present tense is ‘are'

  • However, in the BCP it is ‘art': ‘Our Father, which art in heaven'. In other words, ‘which' refers to the Lord, whom the speaker is addressing in the second person, and therefore ‘art' is complementing the assumed pronoun ‘you'

  • Common modern usage refers to named individuals as ‘who' rather than ‘which'; the effect here is to personalise the approach to God.


  • The BCP version of the ‘Lord's Prayer' was not written for the congregation to read but to listen to. The congregation would comprehend the structure provided by the shape of the language, rather than the shape on the page

  • In modern English however, the Lord's Prayer is read by the congregation, which makes the layout more important. It is laid out so that most lines (excepting that beginning with ‘as we forgive …' ) contain two major stresses, the shape of the text guiding readers into the progression of sentiments through the prayer.

Punctuation and capitalisation

The change of punctuation results in a change of emphasis:

  • In the BCP version the first sentence ends with ‘thy name'. Thus, the main emphasis of the first sentence of the prayer in the BCP is the holiness of God's name

  • In the modern prayer, however, ‘hallowed be your name' is only part of the introduction. Here, the first full stop is placed after ‘as in heaven'. This means that the thrust of the sentence is about God's heavenly kingdom being fully realised on earth.

The use of capitalisation effects a similar shift in emphasis:

  • In the BCP version some letters are capitalised after a comma. The purpose of this is to emphasise the comparison: ‘Thy will be done in earth, As it is in heaven'

  • Moreover, since the prayer was read to the congregation, it was important the reader knew what to emphasise, for the congregation to comprehend the prayer's structure

  • Having a capital letter after a comma also reflects the more fluid rules governing capitalisation in 1662.

Word order

The order in which words are placed also affects where the emphasis of a sentence lies:

  • In the BCP, the sentence ‘For thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory…' very much seems to emphasise God, as it refers to Him from the outset

  • The modern version, ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours…', seems to build up slowly by listing what belongs to God, before finally proclaiming who the things belong to.

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